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Devouring the Flesh of our Children

05/26/2022 05:46:45 PM


Many of us were horrified to hear of the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde Texas. How does our Jewish tradition help us understand this atrocity? What does it call upon us to do? This week we are reading Parashat Behukotai, Leviticus 26 and 27, which includes some of the most horrific curses and punishments, including the threat that the Israelites will eat the flesh of their children. Yet again, the flesh of our children is devoured. What is there to say?


It pains me that I have grown jaded to these hateful events. I am heartsick, but have lost the ability to be shocked, or to expect our society to respond any differently. If the murders, just this past week, of shoppers in a Buffalo supermarket and worshippers in an Orange County church did not provoke a thoughtful response, will my offering another sermon on the topic change anything? If Tree of Life, Poway, and Colleyville did not strike close enough to home, what would? If the murder of 12 students at Columbine High School, 20 students at Sandy Hook Elementary, or 17 Stoneman Douglas High School did not prompt meaningful action, will another 19 dead children make a difference? 


I see this fatalism as a flaw in myself that at the moment I cannot undo.  Leviticus 26 tells us that a key step in the downfall of the Israelites will be when they walk before God with an attitude of “Keri”- which is to say a sense of fatalism, the sense that things “just happen” and there is nothing to be done for it. And so, rather than trot out my well-worn texts on the ethics of responsible gun ownership, I confront a more fundamental question:  how is it that our society experiences these tragedies and still is not shocked into action?


Leviticus 27 offers an insight. The chapter deals with the worth of a human being. If a person vows to give the value of a person to the Tabernacle, the amount of their relative financial worth is specified based on age and gender. Every approach to life, every ethical system, is fundamentally a system of values, of determining what is more important. Is life more important than property? Is freedom more important than health?  What worth does a human being have, in relation to other values?  Judaism places human life above all but three values. One value is the life of another: one must die rather than take innocent life, with the exception of taking the life of another in defense of one’s own (when Judaism permits abortion, it is on these grounds). The second value is another aspect of one’s physical self; one may kill another to prevent a sexual assault. Finally, one must give up one’s own life rather than commit idolatry.  Our society is deadlocked over a question of those values and priorities.


Judaism understands that there is a place in the world for even the deadliest of weapons, but their value is only relative to their role in protecting life. Jewish ethics imposes responsibilities on society and individuals to ensure that those weapons are kept out of the hands of those who would cause harm. The policies of the state of Israel  reflect this value. A gun permit can only be obtained after meeting psychological and physical qualifications so strict that up to 40% of requests are rejected. Each person is allowed to have only 50 bullets at a time. Trained, armed Israeli civilians have stopped many a terrorist attack. Ensuring that unbalanced teenagers don’t have access to those weapons has prevented still more. The life of the innocent is the most important value, and guns have a place only to the extent that they serve that value.


The problem is that others may prioritize differently. There are some in American society who have placed the 2nd Amendment as an absolute value, even above the 6th Commandment. For those individuals, the deaths of children are an unfortunate sacrifice to a value and cause they believe is more important. 


Some have argued that mental health is also an issue. And I agree. I know from working with troubled individuals in our own community that levels of isolation and anger are as great as they have ever been. And yet, in the place of the clamor for greater funding of the resources needed to help those people recover from mental illness, and keep them from being able to harm themselves and others, there is hand wringing.


Some might argue that greater security is the answer, perhaps even arming teachers.  I am concerned that that might include my middle school teacher who would throw chalk at whomever she thought was misbehaving, but rarely pegged the actual perpetrator. Even well-trained law enforcement is at a loss in the face of powerful enough weapons. As more information comes out, it becomes clear that armed officers were on the scene and were still not able to prevent the attacker from entering the school, or subdue him during the course of the attack. 


Greater security comes at the cost of other values. Our congregation pays what is, in essence, a “security and antisemitism tax”- we expend well over $150,000 a year on armed security, and more on other measures.  This summer we are undertaking renovations that include the addition of security features to increase our ability to defend against a possible armed attack.  We have no choice to raise and spend that money, but I wish that it could be used instead to inspire people or help people in need.


What is to be done? Our tradition teaches that in the face of evil, one response that is always available is righteousness. We can choose to be kind to others, to care for those who have been left behind, to seek treatment for those who are troubled. Those are things that we can, and should do. Every day we can, and must, add good to the world. But kindness is not bulletproof, and will not keep weapons from the hands of evildoers.


Behukotai tells us that a society that continues on a willful path, despite warnings and destruction, is doomed to experience even greater tragedy. I’m not sure what will change this course for us. Perhaps someday a movement will coalesce that reflects the centrist majority of people who believe that guns, held responsibly, have a place in society, but should not be made into an idol. However, I think the current, fractious times are against such common-sense solutions.  As long as enough members of our society are so firmly convinced that murdered schoolchildren are not as important as other priorities, we will continue to suffer those losses, and do what we can to defend our communities. When others harden their hearts, we can harden our defenses, and hug our children a little harder. 




Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784